The absence of flaw in beauty is itself a flaw. Havelock Ellis

Alan Jacobson Interview Published on: 09, Sep 2017

Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? What were your favourite and least favourite subjects in school?

I grew up in a lower middle class borough of New York City. My dad was very creative and attended the School of Industrial Art in Manhattan with Tony Bennett—whose name at that time was Anthony Benedetto, if I recall the story correctly. Rather than pursuing his chosen trade as a cartoonist, my dad was drafted into a small family craftsman-style business in Manhattan. He was a perfectionist, showing great attention to detail and pride in his work. My mom was very active in my life; she was PTA president and always looked out for everyone’s interests in the school—and in the neighborhood. If there was something wrong, people knew who to turn to. She would start making calls—and making noise—and got results. I think I was blessed with the best of these attributes from each of my parents. My favorite subject in school was, not surprisingly, English. Second was science and my least favorite? Math—and anything with math at its core: calculus, physics, organic chemistry.

What was the best thing about working so closely with two FBI profilers for so many years?

There's absolutely no substitute for working with the people who do the type of thing I'm writing about. The insight and knowledge they’ve given me during the past 23 years have allowed me to flesh out my characters with depth and understanding while staying true to the subject matter. I don't structure my stories around real cases in my novels, but I take the most interesting things the profilers have learned in tracking, catching, and studying these killers and use it when crafting my stories. The profilers have also been instrumental in reviewing my manuscripts to make sure I “get it right.”

What or who inspired the character Karen Vail? Do you think she's somewhat like a female version of you?

I’d worked with the profiling unit for a few years at that point so I had an understanding of what the profilers did and who they were as individuals. I was writing a novel at the time and needed an FBI agent. Off my fingertips came a character that I named Karen Vail. But I was so stimulated by writing her that I knew she deserved more than a token scene in a novel—she needed a story all her own. I’d been working on an outline for a book that featured the Behavioral Analysis Unit, a story I hoped would become a classic in serial killer literature, “my” THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Once I discovered Karen Vail, I had the lead character I needed to make that story special. I rewrote the outline to one that revolved around Vail—who she is, what her family life was like growing up, and the relationships she had built over time. That book, THE 7TH VICTIM, would’ve been a completely different novel without Vail. As to your question, yes, there’s unquestionably a part of me in Karen Vail. I was born and raised in New York and sarcasm is in my DNA. When I moved to California I was told to “lose it” because Californians took sarcasm for arrogance. So I did—although when I started writing Vail I found it creeping into her thoughts. And it made for some very funny scenes. This became a key part of Vail’s personality because one of her most endearing qualities is her sense of humor. In THE 7TH VICTIM, the first in the Vail series, Vail’s humor is on full display. As the series has progressed, she’s grown as an individual. She learned, as I did, that outside New York, sarcasm is not the best way to relate to people. She’s reined it in so that instead of verbalizing her retorts, she thinks them, and they’ve become an inside joke with the reader. Humor is extremely important, even in thrillers and suspense novels, and it always finds its way—naturally—into every one of my books.

How much time does it usually take you to do the research for a book? Where do you get your research material?

I spend a great deal of time researching each book, but we’re not talking about sitting in a dusty library poring over musty, dog-eared books—or googling every topic from my desk. I do hands-on research with the people who actually do the work I’m writing about—which means going on ride-alongs with cops, spending time at the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, shooting pistols and MP-5 submachine guns in the FBI Academy’s indoor range, shadowing the SWAT team at their San Diego training facility, touring the DEA’s drug laboratory, field offices, and headquarters, working with chief inspectors at London’s Scotland Yard headquarters--or spending time at one of their “Met” police stations in a seedy part of town. And much more. Working with the agents, detectives, and officers allows me to go behind the scenes, ask them questions, see them in their environment, and try out their equipment. Hearing their stories, seeing how they approach different scenarios, sitting in their labs or tactical vehicles, observing them handling criminals and running investigations…these are the things I take back with me to the keyboard when I start writing my novels.

Of all the agencies you’ve worked with- FBI profiling unit, US Marshals Service, DEA, ATF, SWAT, Scotland Yard, and the military - which was your favourite and which was your least favourite?

Tough question! My experiences with all of the law enforcement officers and agencies I’ve worked with have been exceptional. I value and respect all of them and the contributions they make to keep society safe. Local police have gotten a bad rap in recent years because of brutality cases and excessive use of force, etc. Some of the criticism was absolutely justified—there are bad apples in every profession—but by and large law enforcement officers do a difficult job under difficult circumstances. We rarely hear about all the things they do well—which are vital to reining in crime and criminals. I wrote an interesting blog post about body cams (wearable police cameras), which you can read here. It’s a more involved issue than many know—and I only know about these nuances because of my work with law enforcement.

Who are some of your favourite authors and biggest inspirations? Has being an author affected how you review other books?

Early in my career, influences included Steve Martini, Allan Folsom, early James Patterson, Michael Crichton, David Morrell, Nelson DeMille, and Andy McNab. Along the way, Brian Haig, Tess Gerritsen (her medical thrillers), Michael Palmer, and Dennis Lehane. There are many more, but that’s a good start. As to whether or not being an author affects my read of other books, absolutely—on a lot of levels. I’m evaluating the prose, plotting, characterization, etc. It’s tough to lose myself in the story and just enjoy it like non-writer readers.

Are any of the crimes or criminals in your books inspired by real life people and events?

When an idea comes to me, it’s not necessarily because of a real crime in the news—although it could be something I saw years ago and “processed.” When that happens, the initial current event spark may have little to do with the final story idea, but it started me down that path where I thought, “What if X happens?” Other times I’ll go somewhere and realize it has potential for a story—but that story may not take shape for a very long time. For example, during a visit to Ellis Island in 1998, I learned some things about it that I found very intriguing. However, the right story never came to me. It percolated in my mind for 15 years until I put FBI profiler Karen Vail there—and then it all fell into place. It became SPECTRUM, which features a wide-ranging plot involving a serial killer who’s been murdering people in New York City for two decades. The day Vail starts her law enforcement career as a cop with the NYPD, she goes to the crime scene of one of the killer’s first victims—but as a rookie she has no idea what she’s looking at. She takes an interest in the bizarre case and continues to visit crime scenes after she’s promoted to detective and later after she hooks on with the FBI. When she joins the profiling unit she’s in a better position to understand who the killer is and why he’s murdering these women. While the story behind Spectrum was not inspired by a real event or crime, it was inspired by a real place—the history of which I incorporated into SPECTRUM. Something similar happened with INMATE 1577. I’d been to Alcatraz a few times and found it intriguing, but no story idea jumped out at me. One day, many years later, I walked into my office and thought, “Karen Vail on Alcatraz.” The concept immediately started to take shape and over the course of a week, I had the broad outline of very exciting story. I incorporated the great 1962 escape (and the real criminals/escapees) from Alcatraz into INMATE 1577, which was a lot of fun. Again, a place, not an event, inspired me—but the real convicts did figure in the plot. THE DARKNESS OF EVIL, my new Karen Vail novel, appears to be inspired by the recent prison escape that occurred in upstate New York. It was not—but that escape occurred while I was writing THE DARKNESS OF EVIL. My editor couldn’t believe it because there a lot of similarities to how my character escaped from a federal penitentiary. I'd worked with the US Marshals Service in 2003, and again in 2016, to understand how prisoner escapes occur, what things make them possible, and how a fugitive search is carried out. So while THE DARKNESS OF EVIL seems to mirror real life, it was really real life mirroring my fiction! And this is not the first time that’s happened; for some bizarre reason, it’s occurred on some level with nearly every book I’ve written.

What do you think is the key to writing a good crime and mystery novel?

First, you must have characters that people care about. If they don’t like the people in the story, they won’t want to continue reading—it’ll become a chore rather than something they look forward to doing. I want them to think about the characters when they stop reading for the day. Second, readers have to become engaged in the story. They may like the characters and want to find out what happens, but if the story is silly or stale or boring, the reader’s interest level will wane—and they’ll stop caring. For example, in my new novel, THE DARKNESS OF EVIL, I was intrigued by the concept of what it’s like being the daughter of a heinous serial killer. Can you imagine discovering that your father, who tucked you in at night, changed your diapers, held you when you scraped your knees or when a noise scared you at night, is a violent murderer of a dozen women? I couldn't stop thinking about it. And talk about an engaging character—you can emotionally connect with this woman, Jasmine, on many levels. I felt that, if done well, the reader would be hooked from the first page. And judging by the reader reviews, that's exactly what’s happened. Now, what if Jasmine's the one who turned him in to the police? And what if she writes a tell-all book of what it was like growing up with a serial killer father… And what if her father, incarcerated in federal prison, reads it…and decides to come after her to exact revenge? It’s an irresistible setup. Bottom line is that you don’t want the reader to put the book down. I’m not talking about at the end of a day. I mean where they lose interest and close the book—forever. There has to be something that drives the story forward, whether that be intrigue, suspense, mystery, and/or the characters themselves. Good pacing, realistic dialogue, a vivid setting, and rich writing are all key components to a compelling read.

What are some trends you see in the crime fiction genre? Are there any trends you wish would emerge or disappear?

One trend is the desire for shorter and simpler stories. Readers have less time and a lot of things competing for their attention. The tendency is for authors to simplify their stories because there’s pressure to make the books more time manageable. In addition, publishers expect a book a year from their authors, which is a very demanding timeframe. Not surprisingly, it’s significantly more difficult and time-consuming to plot, and write, a complex, rich, and textured story—especially if it involves months of research. As an author, I should be happy about this trend toward shorter books and simplified plots. But I’m not. I love writing and part of that enjoyment is telling a story that keeps the reader absorbed, on his/her toes, and makes him/her think. That’s not to say you can’t do that with a simpler novel, but it takes a different kind of story to do it. It makes it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to meaningfully develop layers and interlinking plot lines. I never used to pay attention to length because my only goal was, and is, to tell the best story I could tell, and if that took 120,000 words, fine. If it took 140,000, okay. I just wrote—and somehow, instinctively, I guess, the manuscripts always ended up between 120,000 and 145,000 words. But the time stress some readers feel with their busy lives can be incompatible with longer works. This is a generalization, of course—there are plenty of readers who like developed, more layered stories and they look forward to losing themselves in that world. Conversely, there are plenty of longer novels that would’ve benefited from an editor whacking away 10,000 words. Another trend I’d like to see reversed is that in which marketing dollars are concentrated on the well-known authors because they are brands and brands sell because people are familiar with them. This is so in all businesses. But this concentration of the lion’s share of marketing efforts (and dollars) causes a self-fulfilling prophecy—they sell more because you support them more, so they sell more, so you support them more. There’s pressure for these authors to write more, and faster, than before—often two books per year. To make this possible and ease the time burden, others are often hired to write the books under the brand author’s name. Finally, the trend toward cheaper books is problematic. I’m not saying this to be self-serving, but when Amazon set the price for a new eBook release at $9.99, the masses began to think they were being gouged if a publisher charged $14.99. I remember back in 2009 my publisher set the price for one of my Karen Vail novels, Crush, at $12.99. I started seeing one-star ratings in my customer reviews because they thought I, the author, was being greedy. But the author has no control over what the publisher charges—and in some cases, the retailer sets the price. Before that $9.99 psychological threshold was established, $12.99 for a new release was a bargain because the hardcover editions sold for $25-30. Self-published books have been even more of a problem in this regard. Usually priced at .99 or 1.99, or even given away for free, the quality of writing is more often than not subpar, the book is not edited, it’s not copyedited, and it’s not proofread. The masses of readers who fill up their Kindles with these books start to think that this is the standard—both in the diminished quality of writing and the diminutive pricing—and reject those books that are professionally written and edited and which sell for $7.99-14.99 as a new release. That’s not to say that all self-published books are of poor quality. That’s a generalization and generalizations can be inaccurate. In addition, some self-published authors have invested in editors, copyeditor, and proofreaders—which obviously raises the quality of the final product. It’s also less likely for that book to sell for $.99 after the author spent several thousand dollars on editing services. That kind of math often does not add up—you'd have to sell several thousand copies just to break even. Of course, subpar writing is not exclusive to self-published works. We’ve all read disappointing professionally published books, including those released by the major houses. Sometimes having all the resources at your disposal to do the job right is not a guarantee of quality. When an author has become a house brand, there’s less reason to spend a lot of money on editorial services because that book will sell regardless—and the return on investment is higher if that time and money are spent instead on marketing.

Did you have any recurring nightmares as a child? Care to describe one?

I did—I had a nightmare of a break-in of my house. I was running from the intruder and wasn’t watching where I was going and ran into the metal wrought iron railing along the stairwell—and it bent several feet forward, much like a cartoon. It doesn’t sound very scary now, but as a five-year-old, it was a recurring dream that obviously made an impression because I still remember it.

What do you think is one of the biggest mistakes people make when publishing and marketing their books?

It’s a long list and there are too many variables to answer this accurately—how was the person published? Major house, middling house, self-published? Hardback, paperback original, or eBook original? Self-published authors have the most control over their work because the show rests completely on their shoulders, so let’s address that scenario. As I mentioned, the self-published author’s biggest mistake is not hiring a professional editor and copyeditor. Giving it to friends or family to read is of some benefit, but there’s so much variability you don’t know what you’re getting. Here’s an analogy: You can treat yourself if you have back pain—and get away with it if it’s a muscle strain. But if it’s bladder cancer, you’ll miss the key signs. In putting off seeing a professional you’d cost yourself valuable treatment time, if not your life. (I use this example because when I was practicing, a man presented to my office with low back pain. Based on the history and the x-rays I took, I was concerned he had bladder cancer that was referring pain to the low back. I sent him to a urologist, who later told me that patient would not have survived if I hadn’t caught it. Moreover, he likely would’ve died if he’d treated his back pain with over-the-counter meds and bedrest.) With a manuscript, a reader can tell you what he/she liked or didn’t like—and his/her criticism might be valid. But it might not be. Also, he/she will likely miss nuances that make the difference between a manuscript that should’ve been scrapped and one that reads like a polished, professionally crafted novel. Before I got published, I gave my first draft manuscript to a diverse group of readers. If more than two people had the same criticism/comment, I gave serious consideration to making a change. If only one of them had a problem with something, I didn’t necessarily do any rewriting. If I changed everything they identified, I’d have been revising for months—often for no reason. That person’s opinion could’ve been wrong. But if a few people had the same response, there was likely something wrong. Let’s look at this using a visual medium: painting. John walks into Mary’s art studio and tells her he doesn’t like her painting because it isn’t modern enough. He doesn’t like the colors and thinks it should be brighter, with more reds because reds are vibrant and alive and hers are too muted. Does Mary grab her palette and start brushing on bright reds? Does John know anything about painting beyond what he personally finds appealing? Writing is an art, just like painting. An art professor can look at Mary’s painting and tell that her strokes are tentative, or her light source is inconsistent, or she needs to mix her colors better, or the lines in the foreground are too fine to show depth. Or her perspective is wrong. This type of feedback is very different from that which John provided. And he can tell her how to fix it. Even some experienced writers are often too close to their material to evaluate it objectively. A skilled editor knows what works and what doesn’t. A copyeditor brings the grammar in line with the proper style manual. These are specialties. (A style manual—for example, the CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE—lays out grammatical rules. What words get hyphenated? Which get capitalized? Are numbers spelled out? If yes, when—and when are they not? These are specified in a style manual, and every publisher chooses one that creates consistency across their entire booklist.) I’m fairly competent relative to grammar, but a conversation with my copyeditor always shows me how many of the nuances I’ve long since forgotten. She’s a walking encyclopedia of grammatical usage. And that’s the point. Relative to marketing, many self-published authors may not realize that once they put the book on sale, their work is not ending, it’s merely entering phase two of the marathon. Phase two entails getting the word out—in short, letting people know that your book exists. Services like AllAuthor help in this process and give you marketing avenues (and market penetration) you would likely not reach (or attain) on your own.

How were you first introduced to the thriller/suspense/crime fiction genre? What is one book you'd recommend to someone who's new to this genre?

After retiring from chiropractic practice at a young age because of an injury, I had to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. The logical thing to fall back on was my English degree. I’d always loved writing but wanted to go to chiropractic school. As I considered writing professionally, my wife handed me Jurassic Park to read and I was hooked. From there I read more of Michael Crichton’s work, Allan Folsom, David Morrell, Steve Martini, Robert Ludlum, Nelson DeMille, Michael Connelly, Michael Palmer, Tess Gerritsen…you see the trend here: the suspense/thriller genre. As to which book I’d recommend as an entry into this genre, I’d check out INMATE 1577 (Karen Vail #4). Set in San Francisco and on Alcatraz, INMATE 1577 tells a compelling story that spans six decades. It’s part thriller, historical fiction, and suspense, with terrific characters and exciting events ripped from history. It was also named one of the best books of the year. SPECTRUM (Karen Vail #6) is also a good entry because it’s got a terrific sense of place and complex character development set against a compelling mystery, action, and suspense. It’s also an excellent introduction to the Karen Vail series.

How do you usually promote your books? What has your AllAuthor experience been like so far and would you recommend it to your other author friends?

Book promotion is one of the more difficult things an author has to do—because most of the methods turn out to be ineffective and often you don’t know if something worked or not. An author must build up his or her fan base because they’re an interested audience. The best ways to do this are to engage your readers on social media and develop a website with a sign-up for a newsletter. And that means you need to send out a newsletter periodically. Newsletters are tough to master but probably the best I’ve seen at this is Hank Phillippi Ryan. Her style is very different from other author newsletters and she probably has excellent engagement. An important point to remember is that what works for one author will not necessarily work for others. This is true in most industries, not just publishing. Why this is so isn’t clear; there are so many variables that it’s difficult to draw accurate conclusions. In some cases, it can be as simple as a book cover that resonates better with people—or it’s a cover that displays better on an online thumbnail. My friend John Lescroart believes that the author’s name can play a role (his is notoriously tough to pronounce correctly). And many female authors believe there’s discrimination against women writers. My experience thus far with AllAuthor has been excellent—they are doing what they’ve said they would do, which is very important—and I look forward to seeing if it made a difference in reaching new readers. I have noticed a significant uptick in Twitter followers, sharing, and social media activity—always a good thing. I definitely recommend AllAuthor to help increase brand visibility.

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